The least we could do -

The least we could do

Until the defence of Afghanistan can be left to the Afghans, somebody has to do the fighting

The least we could do

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Watching Peter MacKay at the press conference confirming that Canadian troops would indeed remain in Afghanistan past the 2011 deadline, albeit in a “classroom” role, I was reminded how much of human behaviour is governed by the furniture.

He was, after all, behind a desk, in a briefing room. There were microphones, and flags, and reporters seated in rows. We are familiar with such scenes, and we associate them with official statements of some seriousness. And so everyone felt obliged to act as if there were some reason to believe a word of what MacKay was saying: as if there were some more-than-accidental likelihood of the policy the government chooses to pursue in future corresponding to the policy being announced today.

Why? Why would we attach any credibility to a formal announcement of policy by a minister of national defence with troops in the field? Just because he said it? There is some context here, after all. The policy the minister was announcing is the diametric opposite of the one that every minister in this government, including the Prime Minister, had sworn blood oaths to for the last two years: that every last soldier, apart from the odd embassy guard, would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by July 2011—no ifs, ands, or training missions. Which policy was itself the diametric opposite to that to which the government had previously committed itself, namely that we would not “cut and run” from Afghanistan before the job was done, that such missions could not be subject to “arbitrary timetables.”

So, the government having now cut and run from cut and run, the opposition can be forgiven for being a little suspicious. Yet it is hard to forgive them more than that. It is craven enough that the government could only be shamed into extending the mission by the approaching prospect of this week’s NATO summit. And it is frankly humiliating, in a nation that boasts of having been born at Vimy Ridge, to hear ministers assuring the public that, no, under no circumstances would any of our forces be allowed out of the compound at Kabul.

But to the opposition—and by opposition I mean here the NDP and the Bloc, the Liberals now finding themselves in agreement with the government, or rather with the government agreeing with them—even that is too much. All of Afghanistan, the NDP solemnly reminded everyone after the minister’s statement, is a war zone: even behind the wire, there is at least a chance that some of our soldiers might be shot at. The Prime Minister had promised, NDP defence critic Jack Harris thundered, that after 2011 it would be a “civilian-only mission.”

Huh? If Afghanistan is too dangerous a place for our troops, then how is it safe for civilians? How, particularly if the civilians have no troops to protect them?

Ah, but of course they will have troops to protect them: just somebody else’s troops. This is the uncomfortable reality of the Canadian position, whether we cut and run or stay and train. Whatever Canada does or does not do in 2011, the rest of the UN-authorized, NATO-sponsored International Security Assistance Force is staying there at least until 2014, and probably beyond. And while everyone agrees that eventually the defence of Afghanistan must be left to the Afghans, until then somebody has to do the fighting. The Americans, for example, don’t get to go home—or hide in the classroom. So why do we?

I know it’s popular nowadays to say “we’ve done our part,” or even “more than our fair share.” And if there were a process by which NATO collectively agreed to rotate its forces, there might be something to it. But such is not the case. NATO right now is a shambles, its members deserting the mission in ragged disarray—and us amongst them, or threatening to be. To be sure, the training fig leaf has spared us the indignity of an all-out Canadian retreat. But it is the next thing to it.

We should be clear about two things. One: our troops want to be there. We have to stop thinking of them as scared 19-year-old conscripts, as in Vietnam or the Second World War. These are professional fighting men and women, who have trained for this job for years. They’re not like you or me. They’re highly motivated, intensely idealistic adrenalin junkies. The casualties we have taken—129 killed by enemy action since 2002, compared to the 211 police officers and firefighters killed across Canada in the same period—they regard, not as inexplicable tragedies, but as occupational hazards.

And two, there is a strategic imperative to the Afghanistan mission, and it isn’t about teaching Afghan girls to read—or even Afghanistan. It’s about Pakistan: nuclear-armed, barely governable Pakistan, beset by its own Taliban insurgency and uncertain how to respond, at least so long as its next door neighbour remains in play. Right now, it is Pakistan that is destabilizing Afghanistan. But let Afghanistan fall, and it will be the reverse.

So it’s no wonder that Canada came under such intense pressure from the more serious NATO states. If we turn tail, it will be that much harder to persuade the others to stay. Indeed, it is hard to imagine they will be satisfied with the coat-holding role described, but will persist in imploring us to return, after a decent interval, to the field of battle. The country’s honour will depend on the hope the government is once again lying to us.


The least we could do

  1. Afghanistan is a soccer ball being kicked around by Pakistan and by extension China, Iran and India. To think that the Afgahan army is ever going to be effective against the will of those countries is madness. When NATO leaves which sooner or later it will, those countries will decide what happens there and who is in charge.

    The often told story about stopping terrorism is fiction to help prop up the American blunder. The planning for 911 didn't happen in Afghanistan and none of the hijackers came from Afghanistan. Even if you could stop every bad person in the world from going to Afghanistan they would just set up shop in Pakistan, Indonesia, Syria etc, etc, etc. Staying makes no sense.

    The only one hurt if we leave is Obama's relection chances for choosing to own this war. Who cares if he isn't relected. It isn't like he is doing what he said he would. Sound familiar?

  2. I think most people don't understand how dangerous Pakistan really is, perhaps a 101 lesson in Pakistan, it's crazy leaders, and their nuclear arsenal, will come in handy!!

    I think Layton needs a lesson too and Ducceppe, honestly who cares what he thinks!!

    I am glad Canada is staying, it is the right thing to do,I know it will still be very dangerous and will support the troops and Government with this!

  3. To be fair to MacKay, it is pretty clear that he has been fighting for this for a while. He did immediately jump upon the opening remarks by Rae some time ago.

    I think it is also clear that Harper has no real position on Afghanistan or indeed foreign affairs except insofar as it impacts domestic politics. That said it is Ignatieff that is going to take the big political hit from this.

  4. Retreat? It was a punitive expedition. The punitive part is over. We came, we saw, we punitated. Now we go home.

    Crikie. Nothing but spin all the way down.

  5. It goes without saying – this war is a mess.
    Canadians are all over the board with regards to how they feel about it.
    I'm torn about it myself. As much as I wish to push my pacifist agenda, I recognize that I just don't have the expertise to make a judgment about what is going on there. Which leads me to…

    "We have to stop thinking of them as scared 19-year-old conscripts, as in Vietnam or the Second World War"

    This is very important. I find it frustrating that so many people are playing the "we gotta save our boys" card, when evidence suggests otherwise. From what I have gathered from reading interviews, and from speaking to soldiers who have served, they do not see themselves as needing to be saved. They don't sit at home postulating whether they are helping are hindering – they know the answer to this from their experiences. As such, I support them, and defer to their expertise. If they believe in what they are doing, and are willing to put their own lives and sanity at risk for this – then I support them.

  6. Coyne is a smart and thoughtful individual but he's going to need to get over the fact that the government changed it's mind over this.

    It's not like it's the first time (and I don't mean just for this government, but all of them).

  7. This is Coyne's most awful writing to date. Our troops are like us! Like you and me! The lack of equipment our young soldiers had in the early days of the mission led to untimely deaths. Is that a professional army out of some Xbox? No. It's our sons and daughters, our Parliament, our policy decisions, our international relations, our responsiveness to the actions of others in the world — it's US! Not us against them. Our military is us. Coyne is anarchy personified. He's a character that divides nationalism from the people and the people from politicians. If ever there was a treasonous civilian — it's him.

  8. As to Coyne's point that the government is lying. I feel the affront, the lie. We all do. Stephen Harper has made it clear that he thinks Canadians are fools. We all know that the pressure to remain in Afghanistan would come from all quarters and Harper's arrogance to think that Canada could stay uninvolved goes to his grave errors of judgement. We're not a people who are too weak to hear the truth. Yet Harper treats us like that. When he said we were pulling out of Afghanistan I marvelled. I thought he had worked that out with our allies. Obama was elected and things changed. Yet we are in the dark. Coyne only says "They're lying". We need the media to tell us the lies. Pakistan? That's the half of it.

  9. This is the wording of the 2008 Parliamentary resolution as it pertains to Canada's withdrawal in 2011. There is nothing in it that is inconsistent with the government's recent announcement that some Canadian Forces will stay in places other than Kandahar, in a training (not a mentoring) role. Quote: "… therefore it is the opinion of the House, that Canada should continue a military presence in Kandahar beyond February 2009, to July 2011 … that, consistent with this mandate, this extension of Canada's military presence in Afghanistan is approved by this House expressly on the condition that … the government of Canada shall notify NATO that Canada will ends its presence in Kandahar as of July, 2011, and, as of that date, the redeployment of Canadian Forces troops out of Kandahar and their replacement by Afghan forces start as soon as possible, so that it will have been completed by December 2011…"

  10. "So it's no wonder that Canada came under such intense pressure from the more serious NATO states. If we turn tail…"

    And who might those more serious NATO states be? France? Spain? Germany? Netherlands? And their combat roll is what, again? Albania? Or, maybe he means the UK? Why even that blighter Cameron is doing the old cut and run! He is pulling troops out of Germany!

    OK, that leaves… umm, the USA? Are they the serious NATO state you refer to? Ha, ha, just kidding. I knew that is who you meant all along.

  11. But to the opposition—and by opposition I mean here the NDP and the Bloc, the Liberals now finding themselves in agreement with the government, or rather with the government agreeing with them—even that is too much.

    There's the rub. First it was absolutely stupid fiscal policy, now it's an incoherent military and foreign policy; both made up on the fly in order to satisfy the very "coalition" of opposition parties Harper keeps trying to tell us constitute the bogeyman.

    Hey, Prime Minister, if they are so evil and damaging to Canada, why do you keep letting them dicatate your government's policy? Is there anything at all that YOU stand for anymore?

  12. I wish I could clearly state what my own thoughts and hopes are on Canada's role in Afghanistan. But I am pretty sure that making Canada (and our magnificent soldiers) look like scared quitters is most certainly NOT on that list.

    Having said that, if Canada DOES stick around to try to help win this war, could somebody somewhere decide: (A) what victory actually entails in this mess, and (B) to actually set out to achieve it? I see zip on both counts at the moment.

  13. I agree with you. My cousin's boy was killed in A'stan. He believed very much in the mission and was on his second rotation when the unthinkable happened. It is somehow comforting to know that he believed strongly in what he was doing, and so do his parents. They are pleased that Canada is staying, even if it is in a different role.

  14. Canadian taxpayers pay our soldiers to defend our borders. Why are they in Afghanistan?

  15. You're totally right. That is, if you totally disregard the entire history of Canadian military service. I won't even take on why Afghanistan, mostly because of my mixed feelings on it. But if you really want to get a clue about the role of Canadian military, I'd recommend you read some books, or better yet, talk to someone who has served in the military.

  16. But having won the peace, in those previous actions to which you infer, a ceasation of hostilities was obtained. The fighting stopped. How and with whom will a ceasation of hostilities be obtained in this situation? This kind of conflict is a species that the Canadian military has not been involved in before (nope, not even the Boer war). This is more like a Thirty Years or Hundred Years War type of conflict, if we allow it to get out of hand. And by we, I mean if the Canadian public gives too much leash to the political class.

    So, the burning question becomes… why is it that this is taking so long? The explanation, insurgency, isn't cutting it.

  17. I am clearly as confused as our political leadership on the issue of Afganistan. Nonetheless, I am sure that this war will never end. Why therefore do we feel it necessary to defend a country that clearly does not want to defend itself, at least defend itself in the way we see it. Years after Nato enetered this war and supported an Afgan Gov't, there is little in the way of leadership shown by the Afgan Gov't. with too few troops joining in the defence of their country. There are lots a new Taliban fighters and from what we are able to extract from the public domain, more Taliban than NATO troops or more than 150,000. We should stay as agreed until aug 2011 and get out. Training should be undertaken from here on in and we should not stay one minute longer.

    We should save the $500,000,000. that is projected and reduce our deficit. We can ill afford this war that has no end militarily or politically.

    Time to get out!!

  18. Nowhere in this article, nor in the comments do I find the word:
    This always happens when the 'let's not quit now' mantra gets thrown around. Especially by fence-sitting journalists who see the HarpRaeTieff coalition of the willing, and a 53% 'training force' approval from dubious polls.
    THAT'S what you are committing professional soldiers to: KARZAI. Every month, there's some new WTF?! nonsense from that corruption-committed goon. One day he's hosting Iran's leader, next dissing Petraeus' revived 'shock and awe' policy, then something else.
    And every few months there's the obligatory, pro forma mantra: "Karzai must reign in/curb/reduce (pick your verb-flavour of the week) corruption." It comes from NATO, then from Obama, then Petraeus, Ignatieff. Just in case the global public gets too jaded from hearing it.
    How 'bout: "We cut off a Karzai finger every time $1000 goes under the table."
    Forgetful minds. Another 4 years? (5? 6?…)
    C'mon. Outa there. No trainers. Everyone out. Enough of this.

  19. We could stay in Afghanistan for 1000 years and it will still never be stable.

    Like several previous posters, I have no idea what to really think of this mess, this war, and our role in it.

    But I am surely sick of having my federal government lying to me and other Canadians about such vital things. Who trusts harper any more? I know posters will defend him because he's all they got, and he's in power, but really, who trusts him?

  20. "Until the defence of Afghanistan can be left to the Afghans, somebody has to do the fighting"

    So Afghanistan is a protectorate of NATO now. There are a lot of countries that are a mess. If this is the rationale, then Canada will never be done fighting injustice wherever it may be. War, what's it any good for? According to Coyne, absolutely EVERYTHING!

  21. Sure. Our efforts in Afghanistan will not be in vain if NATO stays relevant and in existence.

  22. Korea might correlate to some degree.

  23. I was careful to choose my words… at somepoint, in Korea, people agreed to stop shotting. How do we get to that here? Additionally, Korea was total war for four years, against NK and PRC! Who is it we are fighting now?

  24. You're right — it's a weak comparison at best. I guess I was thinking that ultimately people are ushered into a better way of living by education, economy, investment, etc. South Korea today is a place lots of North Americans happily move to, while North Korea is not a place most people would go to willingly.

    My opposition to the war is only partly related to the lives of military men and women. I agree with Coyne that they are not draftees shaking in their boots like I would be. But whether the rank and file want to be there doesn't matter that much to me. I just think propping up Karzai and training Afghans to fight a war is very likely pointless when they will just go back to their Medieval ways as soon as the green backs run out.

    If we're using the military for social engineering, let's save the Congo. I haven't heard from Colonel Kurtz in years. I wonder what he's up to these days.

  25. Politicians have a well-earned reputation for being liars, however, there are times when the circumstances of a situation change, necessitating a new policy. Leaders may not always be able to make those circumstances clear in their statements, either (especially in foreign policy settings). For instance, although Kennedy made concessions to Khrushchev over the Cuban missile crisis, the agreement was secret, preventing Khrushchev from gloating about a foreign policy win at home.

    Canada's mission in Afghanistan was never about Afghanistan itself. It was about Canada's role in Nato, and possibly quid pro quo from the US. Softwood lumber? Looser border restrictions? A crack at the trillion dollars worth of resources (Canada being a mining superpower)? Did Harper delay his announcement till after the UN security council vote (assuming that Canada would do better as a state with a timetable for withdrawal)? All of these things are possible, and we won't really know what drove the decision till long into the future.

  26. Yes, yes, we're all quite aware of how this government is especially fond of using technical loop-holes in the written parts to get out of what they promised us verbally would be happening.

    That doesn't make it any more excusable.

  27. I'd just like them to make a decision as to what they're going to do, instead of always telling us when they're going to do something. Especially because it's becoming clear that the when doesn't mean squat anyway.

    So yeah, your second paragraph is spot on.

    That said, I think I'm leaning slightly more toward having them leave. Mostly because what's the point of staying? Even if we stabilize the place, all we're doing is handing power over to a government that's shown itself to be massively corrupt and unstable within itself. It's like when the cops show up to a domestic violence call for a habitual spouse abuser. They can't make real change, all they can do is give the abused a bit of a respite while they're there. I'm not sure the cost to us is worth what temporary relief it may be providing to the people there.

  28. It's ironic that you've articulated the case for staying in Afghanistan, in just a few paragraphs, better than the government ever has.

  29. Let this McKay show us what he is made of besides bullsh*t and put his life on the line rather than a bunch of kids. Easy to huff and puff when you get the perks and others of the dying. They have been killing each other for centuries and will continue to do so long after this short-term experiment called democracy has spent itself into oblivion.

  30. When did our lack of equipment lead to all these deaths all of a sudden? Granted the military lacks equipment I don't think that is up for debate. But our casualties overseas are not a result of this. To date we have had 8 equipment related accidental deaths. The majority of these are rollovers which it don't matter what kind of euipment you have you rollover any vehicle yr prob gonna get hurt or killed. As far as the early days are concerned our first casualties were friendly fire from the Americans. You make a good point that our military does come from within us as a society but they are anything but like you and me. They may have started out as part of "us" but through sacrifice, determination, and , what seems to be strange to some Canadians these days, a sense of duty to serve their country to give back at least a little of what they and thier loved ones have recieved for being Canadian, they have become so much more.

  31. There are two issues:
    1. Whether we should be in Afghanistan
    2. Whether the way the government made this decision (unmade this decisions?) was right.

    Just because I might agree with the government on #1 does not mean we cannot raise hell about #2.

  32. As I am also conflicted with the continuing presence of Canada in Afghanistan, I can't help but agree with you when it comes to rely on the concensus and expertise of our military who were there to serve and knows more what they are facing, what should be needed, and what else could be done. I do hope though that they will be out of there pretty soon, while leaving Afghanistan to stand on its own with a sense of purpose, hope, and be able to provide their people a foundation for democracy and freedom to take root. There are times when looking at how their neighbours work in undermining them, make it seems like an extremely tall order.

  33. My thoughts exactly, that is why I am conflicted on Canada's continued presence there. They have to establish a clear bite sized end goal, otherwise there will be no end in sight.

  34. Coyne nails it. This Harper government shamelessly lies through its teeth. So how can Canadians even believe that this Harper government knows what it's doing in the extension of the mission and not get more Canadian troops killed or even involved in combat.

    Make no mistake our troops will continue combat.

  35. Let the cops show up enough times and the abused spouse may decide enough is enough. It doesn't happen often but it happens.

    Progress is slow, but if we can educate the population the country may improve. If we do nothing it will definitely not.

  36. Coyne is absolutely wrong on this. There is no possible justification for us to stay there. No justification for being there in the first place.
    None of those previously posted excuses can hold a molecule of water.

  37. Karzai is a corrupt fool. Karzai's chief of staff is an Iranian stooge. Elections in Afghanistan are a joke. Pakistan is finally dealing with its own problems. Afghans can fight for and over the kind of government they want on their own. The presence of foreign troops is the problem now, not the solution. U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan is and has been an utter failure. Training people who run away as soon as they confronted with danger is a total waste of time, money and effort. Time to cut our losses and bring the troops home.

    The real reason we are staying in Afghanistan is to give Obama and his Afghanistan policy some cover until the next presidential election so his policy cannot be declared a failure – we are helping him avoid a "Mission Not Accomplished" moment.

  38. Claudia, with your conviction and a follower of Mckay's little mind, why don't you jon the military and go and fight. The Canadian Taxpayers will gladly pay to bring you home in your coffin, and put you 6 feet underground. Make your choice.

  39. Afghanistan is ungovernable. The Afghan "soldiers" and "police" we're supposed to be "training" walk with their helmet, guns, uniforms all askew and disheveled and look as if their aim is to be able to chuck it all on a second's notice. They have zero loyalty to the regime.

    In my opinion we can stay there for ten more years or a hundred more years and either way it won't make a stitch of difference. There are other places in the world that are far easier to "help" than Afghanistan but at the end of the day there's only so much you can do. People in other countries are adults just like us, they have all of our moral and intellectual faculties and they have to want to help themselves. Like us, they have the right to be left alone to live as they see fit.

  40. I agree, there are economic considerations not least of which is the need for millions of Canucks to be able to make mortgage payments. So we need a border open to our products going south. We can't have governing regimes in the US hostile to our interests. A generation ago we deemed it an urgent necessity to more fully integrate economically with the US. So maybe a stream of dead and wounded from far off places is the price we pay. Now we have to get with American foreign policy whether we like it or not.

  41. And how many of our people are you willing to sacrifice for this occurrence which.. in your words.. "doesn't happen often"? If it was all sweetness and light and we just show up and start fixing things, fine. Unfortunately, it's not, and we've got men and women dying out there for what is likely to be — in the longer term — a completely pointless exercise. Sure, short term we might improve conditions somewhat.. but thinking that anything we change there will last longer than we've had to stay already strikes me as somewhere between exceedingly idealistic and plain naive.

  42. Speaking as a Pakistani. I'm always incredibly confused by the contention that Pakistan is destablising Afghanistan. It is the other way around and has been since the Soviet Union invaded the country. Afghani refugees flooded into Pakistan and it is Afghani opium that flows through Pakistan to get to the outside world.

    It must be noted as well that there is no military force in the world capable of sealing off the Pakistani-Afghani border. NATO can't do it, the Afghanis certainly can't do it, and the Pakistanis can't do it either. More Pakistani soldiers die in this struggle than the soldiers of any other nation.

  43. Our armed forces should not have been sent to Afghanistan in the first place. Why are our troops sacrificing their lives for a corrupt regime and many unappreciated Afghans? The Afghanistan mission was not worth the effort…

  44. algoguen: I totally agree with Claudia. As for joining I've been in the canadian Forces for 34 years. Is long enough for you?
    As for you , do you really understand the ways of the world or are you one of those malcontents who continously call upon yoy "freedom" of expression, won I might add at the expense of 132000 Canadian war dead, to denegrate those who put our actions before words, so that people like you can live in your mama's basement playing video games and complain about people who actually do things and go places in their lives.

    Way to go Claudia

  45. Karen, please try to write with a modicum of accuracy. The troops are well equipped. I see this in the gear my corporal grandson brings home.
    I served for 12 years (1955 to 1967) and know what constitutes poor equipment.
    My general feeling about the war is we should never have become involved. The middle east has been in turmoil for thousands of years – tirbe vs tribe. Let them solve their own problems without interference from abroad.
    If it's over oil, we're in big trouble!

  46. I've asked the same question and I'm a vet of 12 years service.

  47. Korea was a conflict. War was neveer declared by any nation.
    The conflict lasted three years from June 1950 to July 1953.

  48. That is an unnecessarily fine distinction you have made. Granted, it is probably how China, USSR and the USA managed to skirt around directly bombing each other.

  49. I agree with Peter MacKay when he says, "We have to fight for the Afghans because they can't fight for themselves." But every time a member of the Van Doos takes it to the chest and leaves this world long before he's ready to die, a part of me dies with him. My father killed a Chinese girl without shoes in the Korean War during the battle of Little Gibraltar, and for what, to end all wars in Korea? Since when does one war end all wars? I don't know what the motto of the Van Doos is, but it might as well be: Il faut le faire. It has to to be done. We send our boys on missions impossibles, and then we wonder why they don't all come back home.

  50. Il faut le faire. It has to be done.

  51. I wonder why are we in afghanistan ? I do not think many of us know . Many of our roops mus wonder the same thing. We have our politiciations lamenting the lives lost , what about the maimed and soldiers thah have lost limbs.? We do not hear much of those people maimed and how thier lives have forever changed. We here from officers of th usual stories of how brave they wer ann serving to make things better over there, great PR. It is our politcians sending our troops over there, the rannk and file follow orders. Send all these politicians over there and do the fighting instead og taking PR staged tours. Maybe if they got a limb or two blown off they may think twice of sending our troops into stupid no sese conflicts for Canadians. Are we really on our knees for the USA. Canadian politics had better wake up, this is not the"good old days" The world has changed and sadly not for the better. STOP having our troops killed! Lets look after our people that need help and let our Military help us.

  52. Excuse my typing please, I can spell but do not type well Pete

  53. Andrew Coyne 's opnions are extreme right-wing elitist (if I may use the expression) He represents to elite and their views which have no value to the average Canadian.Who care's what this jerk has to say. I put him in the same bag as Don Cherry and Barbara Amiel. These people would pass you on the street if you were starving and tell you to get a job.
    I can't believe that Barbara Amiel still has a job. Her husband is one of the biggest thiefs. He rejected his citizenship and told us we were a bunch of losers. Then he gets caught stealing and all of a sudden, he wants back in. Barbara is married to this guy. In my humble opinion, that means they share a lot of the same opinons. In my mind, she is a co-conspirator and should be in jail. She must have a lot of right-wing elitist buddies at Macleans magaine to stil have a job there.
    But then again, MacLeans magazine is extreme right wing representing the Toronto elite. So what else would you expect!!!!